Cuba is a country cloaked in an intriguing mystery, a place of cultural richness and political restriction. Its history is complex, and the isolation entwined in that history is equally compelling. When contemplating the confinement surrounding Cuba, the image of a caged songbird is brought to mind, relating both to Cuba’s tourists and its residents. We can all connect to this isolation in a universal sense today, our current global predicament causing so many of us to feel trapped and caged, no matter the country. While Cuba once felt unique in its restrictions, today it is a haunting new normal across the globe.
In Cuba, one will most likely be quick to encounter a lonely caged songbird – a tradition of owning songbirds is longstanding in Cuba and a part of their cultural heritage. As Katrín Elvarsdóttir experienced in her travels to Cuba some years ago, most homes she encountered had one, if not many, adorned in intricate cages within sparse and barren homes. Perhaps the Cubans feel a certain affinity with the songbird, their own movements restricted and controlled. An isolated human seeking an isolated companion in their own cage. In a place where economic poverty is the rule rather than the exception, perhaps ownership of a songbird presents a certain facade of luxury, implying an indulgence of lifestyle so as to mask the appearance of lacking and wanting.
In her work, Katrín captures an essential loneliness and solitude. And yet, within the images a yearning for richness calls out, both emotional and material. Her photographs are grainy and imperfect, inverted colors and negative images revealing odd tones that bring life to a mysterious country. This vibrancy of colors contrasts the subject matter – abandoned buildings, empty homes, vacant storefronts. The grandness of the Cuban architecture is deceiving, portraying a level of luxury and European sophistication while on the inside the buildings are largely void. A Colonial history shines strongly through the country’s architectural elements, and works in some ways to mask its true barrenness. Katrín captures a certain decrepitude in her photographs, though the viewer can feel a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps – to present an image of wealth, of having, and of abundance.
And the songbird itself, photographed in the seeming dark (as the homes lack sufficient electricity and lighting). This creates a spotlight pinned onto the birds and their cages, bringing them out from the dark. It feels as though she is capturing a secret, revealing something that was meant to stay hidden. They peek out at us from their cages, asking for freedom, or at least for something more. The songbird seeks to connect and interact, and they feel quite human to us in that sense – companionship is our most basic human need.
An isolated country begins to feel familiar to us. A decrepit building, an empty room, a locked cage, and the lonely love song, echoing out on barren walls.
Daria Sol Andrews